There are four things that I have learned over the years about my connection to the Varcoe family.
- There are an awful lot of Varcoes’. Past and present, the descendant numbers are huge. These were big families.
- Varcoes’ have been in Cornwall since at least 1520.
- Mining and agriculture were the predominant family trades by the nineteenth century. It would be these mining skills that sent Varcoes abroad. From the 1840s onward mass emigrations from Cornwall included destinations as diverse as Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada, and South Africa. People who’d never traveled more than a few miles were relocating to the other side of the world.
- And, the fourth thing which I found out as a child, was that my grandfather had absolutely no idea who his father’s mother was. Didn’t even know her name. So, I began my search…
In the Varcoe family, I found forenames that appeared to me to be Hebraic in origin. In contrast, we know that Cornwall and St. Dennis particularly were areas staunchly Methodist. Methodism being a monotheistic Protestant faith borne out of the revivalist movement of the eighteenth century in England. When I was growing up I would occasionally be told that my mother’s paternal grandfather (Moss) had often been referred to (from those in his generation) with the disparaging moniker of ‘that old Jew’. Which intrigued me, did we have Jewish ancestry? What I know of Judaism is that it is conferred from the mother to her children. Confusingly both of my great-grandfather’s parents were acknowledged Methodists. His mother (Sarah Anne Varcoe) being from St. Dennis in Cornwall. I was confused. Further research has revealed (years later) academic findings regarding the unique Jewish and Methodist histories of Cornwall. It would appear that both Gentiles and Jews were embracing these ancient biblical names for their children. I’ve included a full reference list of my sources at the end of this page.
Celtic Britons and Saxons:
Before there was a Cornwall there was Kernow. Kernow is the old Cornish word for Cornwall. The Celtic Britons were the indigenous inhabitants of England. There is a fable recounting how the island of Britain came first to be ruled in these mythical times. The fable stated that the hero Corineus, a cousin to Brute was the first conqueror of the island we now call Britain. According to the tale, he wrestled a mighty giant called Gogmagog (reputedly at what is now Dover). A contrasting claim is that the feat occurred at Totness in Cornwallis, where Brute had landed. Anyway, Corineus won the fight and threw Gogmagog over the cliff where he broke his neck. Corineus was given (Cornwall) as a gift for his prowess (Tonkin (Carew), 1710). The Cornish people were the first of the Celtic Britons to forcibly lose their language of origin because of supplantation. They were also the first region in Britain separated from other Celtic Britons by the Saxons arrival in the ninth century (Pearce, 2004). The Saxon invaders pursued the indigenous Celts violently, driving them out and putting their Saxon dwellings on the most fertile and accessible lands. The Celts did not have the resources to overcome the Saxons and for their own safety moved towards the waste moors and craggy mountains of the north-west (Tonkin (Carew), 1710). It was these lands to that held the remaining concentration of Celtic Britons. The corn in Cornwall is believed to be derived from a Latin word indicating a horn shape. Such was believed to be the shape of Cornwall. Cornwall juts out into the sea on three sides. The wall is believed to have come from the Saxon word for foreigner or strange, wealh. The Saxon’s called the area Cornu Walliae. This later morphed into Cornwall (Tonkin (Carew), 1710).
I speak no Saxonage.
However, the Cornish are reputedly a committed lot and rather than adopt all the Saxon ways they merged their Celtic past, borrowed heavily from their neighbours (the Welsh) (MacCulloch, 1835) and developed their own individualised nomenclature that made them a unique and diverse culture existing within Britain. At the time of our Varcoes this resulted in a Cornwall that spoke a unique dialect of English with well-formed cultural rules governing family and religion. Indeed, when Richard Carew was surveying Cornwall (prior to 1610) he remarked that it was not uncommon for a Cornishman upon being spoken to or asked a question to obstinately respond with, Meea navidna cawzasawzneck. Translated this meant I can speak no Saxonage. As Carew noted this was of course untrue. The Cornish could speak English as well as anyone, they just refused to speak anything other than their own dialect. Carew noted that the Cornish believed themselves a race separate to the rest of England. This same sentiment appears to have been carried through to the current day (Deacon, 2010).
Jews in Cornwall
Mythology in Cornwall has alluded to an ancient Jewish presence in Cornwall. Stories tell of Jews operating tin businesses from the time of early modern-history (Pearce, 2004). There are stories that trader Phoenicians visited Cornwall bringing Jews with them (Hammer, 2017). There is even a story that Joseph of Arimathea (a Jewish businessman and the same man who gave Jesus his tomb) came to Cornwall for the tin trade (Sassenberg, 2012). Another story reports that Jesus himself came to Cornwall with his Uncle (a tin merchant) as a young person (Sassenberg, 2012). Tin mined and smelted to make copper has been a valuable metal since antiquity. That traders visited Cornwall in these times is entirely likely. However, there is little evidence to academically support a recorded Jewish population in Cornwall prior to the sixteenth century. The theories remain largely legend (Sassenberg, 2012). When Richard Carew was surveying Cornwall back in the late 1500’s the adherence to this belief of a civilisation of Jews populous in the area who had controlled tin mining in the area remained fixed by the resident community (Tonkin (Carew), 1710).
From 1740 there was the settlement of a few small Jewish communities in Cornwall. These communities from largest to smallest were Penzance, Falmouth, Truro, Redruth, Camborne (Sassenberg, 2012) and St. Austell (Pearce, 2004). In contrast to the earlier stories of middle-eastern Jews, these Jews came from eastern-Europe. This followed a wave of anti-Semitism where previously Jewish communities had been welcomed. The Cornwall Jews came from places such as Holland and Germany (Sassenberg, 2012). It is remiss to assume that anti-Semitism was a construct of the twentieth century in eastern-Europe. The tensions between Christianity and Judaism had tightened and slackened throughout history. Historically the Catholic church leadership (and Popes) had played a significant role in advocating for Jews to be denied homelands in Christian and especially Catholic countries with an emphasis on encouraging them to return to their ancestral lands in northern Africa (Saperstein, 2004). The problem was that Jews were a people without a homeland let alone one in Africa! Many of the European Jews had been in their countries for several generations. Indeed, they defined themselves as Polish, Russian, German and Dutch nationals. It was their ancestors who had first been invited to come from Spain (Sephardic Jews) and northern Africa (following the ‘ousting of the Jews’) to their new homes in Europe. It’s challenging in today’s’ world to try and imagine with context the depth of mistrust that existed between the Christian and Jewish communities in Europe at that time. I suppose the closest I can come to it is observing the fear-mongering and racially driven hatred that is employed as a weapon even today in our supposedly advanced societies. There are still those who will mongrel religions in the name of being just in their actions. This despite the immutable fact that these actions are abhorrent to all that we have been taught in any of our ancient and current philosophical teachings, regardless of which monotheistic or non-religious background we come from.
I’m fascinated by the evolution of cultural beliefs. One of these great finds for me has been learning that the term Tommy-knockers emerged from the mining industry in Cornwall. Stephen King’s 1985 book Tommy-knockers talked of aliens who had been trapped beneath the ground in rocky mines causing terror to nearby communities. He referred to these as Tommy-knockers. Tommy-knockers or as they were initially called Knacker/Knockers, came from a fable by Cornish miners of a little old man with a misshapen head and limbs who had died tragically in the mines. The Knocker would unexpectedly appear in the mines ‘knocking’ on the rocky walls with his pick, a foreboding of trouble. If something troublesome happened that could not be explained, then it was the work of the Knocker. As anti-Semitism took hold in nineteenth-century England the Knocker was re-branded. Cornish Jews who dealt in tin were called Tinners. The Knocker of Cornish history re-emerged as a desperate and troublesome Tinner Knocker (Sassenberg, 2012). Chetham, Bibiliothecar (1853) described as folk-lore the belief among miners in Cornwall that earlier communities of Jews had since the time of the Carthaginians and Phoenicians dominated tin-mining in Cornwall. From 1880 through to 1906 much of the small English Jewish communities in Cornwall left England as part of a global mass emigration to the more tolerant and welcoming United States. The last of these communities to leave was from Penzance, leaving only small numbers of regionally disconnected Jews living in Cornwall (Sassenberg, 2012).
So, I’m fairly certain that within the Varcoe branches of Cornwall, we’ve not got an ancient Jewish history. (More’s the pity, I love diversity!) My DNA testing sadly didn’t provide me with any evidence either. What we do have though is Cornish ancestry and the more I learned about the Cornish the more I appreciated this heritage. I still had a pressing question. Why the wide usage of Hebraic names in these towns of origin in Cornwall?
Methodists in Cornwall
Methodism took root from a revivalist movement during the eighteenth-century in England spearheaded by John Wesley, his brother Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. A cleric and theologian, Wesley took Protestant religion to the masses with roadside and field preaching. His churches were barns or buildings that could hold the masses of everyday folk who flocked to hear him speak (Cornwall Guide, 2019). Methodism with its simple and attainable message became a faith for all men. Tenets of Methodism included joyful worship with song and praise. Indeed Charles Wesley wrote over 6,000 songs of praise for the faithful. Respect and dignity for humanity underpinned the Methodists beliefs. To this end Methodists were required to collaborate, come together and whenever possible engage in missionary work and evangelism. (Methodist Heritage, 2019). There was also the assiduous study and learning of the messages of the bible. In the case of Methodists, the principal area of study was the new testament. The radical belief of Methodists being the unilateral belief that salvation in heaven following an earthly life of service was assured to all men who took God into their lives (Cornwall Guide, 2019). This was threatening to established orders who had long touted that heaven could only be achieved by those who were pre-determined as having been worthy or who were given religious dispensation to enter heaven. Religion was the dominion of the powerful and the rich, to be told something different was absolutely stunning to the common people. Similarly, traditional Christian canon held that outside of ‘the true faith’ the souls of non-Christians would be denied heaven. Methodists did not ascribe to this. Methodists also became widely unpopular with swathes of politicians and slave property owners as they preached vociferously against the holding of slaves (Cornwall Guide, 2019). The Methodists brought a message that was welcoming and inclusive to the common man and the disenfranchised alike. The Methodist preachers message was that Jesus Christ, the Son of God had died for all of humanity (without exception) and therefore salvation was available for all. Wesley and his followers said that the responsibility for the care of the needy was a responsibility of all Methodists. Charity was considered the road all Methodists should engage in to provide care for the sick, the poor and the afflicted. For the first time in European modern-history criminals and those previously marginalized, the unemployed, the drunk, the disabled, widows and orphans and those that could not care for themselves were deemed worthy of mercy through charity. As a result, many establishments such as hospitals and orphanages and poor relief were built and run by the Methodists. Which is not to say that Methodism or its members were all perfect. The idea however of mercy for all simply through having been born was a powerful human aspiration for its time (Methodist Heritage, 2019). For a more in-depth treatise of why Methodism was so wholly embraced by Cornwall? Bernard Deacon explains this. Click Here, Bernard Deacon. Cornish Methodism or Methodism in Cornwall?
Uniquely Cornwall embraced Methodism more entirely and unreservedly than any other area in Britain. By 1750 Methodist societies existed in thirty-four of the mining communities of Cornwall. By 1798 Redruth and the St. Austell Methodist societies were the fourth and seventh largest in the whole of Britain. The Cornish adopted Methodism as their religion for the masses with their numbers exceeding those of the other denominations (Cornwall Guide, 2019). I suppose given our Varcoe’s close proximity to St. Austell it is not too hard to work out why they were such staunch Methodists. Perhaps it was this religious fervor that underpinned the use of traditional biblical christian names for their progeny?
Cornish surnames historically have many similar prefixes. Indeed, Carew and then Cambden recorded a ditty which could indicate the same. “By Tre, Pol and Pen, you shall know the Cornishmen.” So, wrote Carew in his surveys of Cornwall. These prefixes to Cornish names being most common. Camden was a little more encompassing and wrote By Tre, Ros, Pol, Lan, Caer and Pen, you may know the most Cornishmen (Tonkin (Carew), 1710).
I’ve discovered that the above is a rather simplistic and antiquated view that is not entirely correct. In fairness, Carew did record this prior to 1710 during his travels. A more accurate discussion on the origins of Cornish names can be found in the works of Bernard Deacon (2019). Click Here, The Surnames of Cornwall published in January 2019
Like myself, you will have noticed Varcoe doesn’t fit these rules or even a variation thereof. Bannister (1871) wrote a glossary of Cornish names, in this Varcoe was recorded as an ‘unexplained name’. There were plenty of these unexplained names, but it doesn’t give us any insight into why the name was so rare in Cornwall? Varcoe was plentiful as a name (440 references in the 1841 census) but only in Cornwall where the families were congregated. Then I stumbled across the seminal work of Bernard Deacon (who has become my favourite authority on all things Cornish!). I’m sticking here a verbatim excerpt of a response he made on his website in 2017 to an inquirer as to whether Varcoe was a Cornish name? This is the first time I’ve ever been able to secure a reasonable discourse on the origins of the Varcoe name.
If you are interested in Varcoe’s and the Cornish connections, do yourself the most considerable of favours and look at Bernard Deacons’ phenomenal work Click Here: Bernard Deacon
Excerpt from Bernard Deacon’s website (2017).
Varcoe (and its spelling variant Vercoe) is most certainly Cornish. It was found in St Ewe and St Dennis as early as the 1520s and has remained heavily concentrated in mid-Cornwall and the clay country ever since. It’s a Cornish language patronymic, meaning son of Mark (Markow was also a surname in the 16th century). For some reason the m became permanently lenited to v (which was not uncommon – a similar process occurred for bean/vean in placenames). As for ‘common’, it depends on how you define it. It’s fairly common in mid-Cornwall but not very common elsewhere. In 1861 there were 144 families in Cornwall headed by a Varcoe/Vercoe. Compare that with the over 1,600 Williamses (the most common surname) or even the 400 or so Hicks.
Cornish words that have become part of the Australian vernacular.
Now I got these from Wikipedia, so it’s just for the fun of it. But did you know that many words and phrases that are familiar in our Aussie language today came from Cornish immigrants in the mid-1800s to Australia? Try these few on, they are ones familiar to me many of them from my childhood as ways of describing something/someone.
Rummaging around looking for something of value. You might say to someone. “What are you fossicking about for?”
A tough, stalwart little kid. Bravery. If a little kid falls over and tries not to cry when he gets up. “Geez, your a tough little nugget aren’t you?”
Confused or have proposed something completely ridiculous. You’ve lost your mind.
“My mum’s ancient”. Meaning old.
More heard from older ladies when I was a child. Referring to something or someone being really good. Don’t really hear this one much anymore.
Well, I’ll be blowed”. Being stunned by something unexpected.
A simmering argument that has erupted and ended up with everyone getting involved. whether invited or not. Can feature heavily at gatherings and funerals or wherever alcohol is served in quantity etc.
Poop. Mothers often too little kids, “Have you cacked yourself?”
The dumping place in the house where everything gets dumped. Mothers can be heard to say “If this doesn’t all get picked up and put away, I’m setting this catchpit on fire.”
“He’s a daft one that one”. A bit silly.
As in “he’s not exactly right you know.” Again meaning someone a bit silly.
“She looked all gawky.” Not well put together.
Hell of a good time
A really good social time was had. Can quickly turn into a bun-fight.
Completely drunk and unable to make any sense. Frequently the person who starts the bun-fight off.
“Mind you remember what I told you”. To remind/remember. Also, a warning from your mother not to muck up after she’s warned you in advance.
Wagged/skived off from school or work.
You keep that up and I’ll give you something to roar about. Crying loudly, usually to a naughty kid from a frustrated parent.
To take a short cut or a quick trip. ” Just nip in here, I’ll be back in a second”
Garden fork. My mother always used to ask for “the pronged fork out the shed”.
To have a really bad cold
Start a song or music for a group
“It’s not worth Tuppence ha’penny.” Without real value.
Going out of the city, usually heading northward. Getting away from it all or visiting people who live out in the rural areas.
“Us two are going as well”. Usually accompanied by a teacher or linguist correcting with “We two”.
“We be going as well. Same teacher/linguist. “We are”.
Used to be said to make a horse stop. These days you might say to a driver of a car. ” Wo Ho, here we are”. You’ve arrived.
- Bannister, John. Reverend. (1871). The Salamanca Corpus: A glossary of Cornish names 1869-1871. Retrieved from: https://gredos.usal.es/jspui/bitstream/10366/123981/2/SC_J.Bannister_Cornish%20Names_1869_1871.pdf
- Chetham, Bibiliothecar. (1853). Notes and Queries. Medium of Inter-Communication. Literary Ment, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, Etc. Volume Eight. July – December, 1853. George Bell, 186 Fleet St, London, England. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=rDsX0LZEc-gC&pg=PA655&dq=why+does+cornwall+have+a+history+of+gentiles+with+hebraic+names&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjYwN2Xl_7hAhUw63MBHWD3AlAQ6AEINDAC#v=snippet&q=cornwall&f=false
- Cornwall Guide. (2019). John Wesley and the Methodist Movement. Retrieved from: https://www.cornwalls.co.uk/history/people/john_wesley.htm
- Deacon, Bernard. (2010) Cornwall: A concise history. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. p247
- Deacon. Bernard. (2019). Cornish Methodism or Methodism in Cornwall? Retrieved from: https://bernarddeacon.com/cornish-methodism-or-methodism-in-cornwall/
- Deacon, Bernard. (pre-publish, 2019) The Surnames of Cornwall. Retrieved from: https://bernarddeacon.com/the-surnames-of-cornwall-a-forthcoming-book/
- Hammer, Michael, B. (2017). The Dot on the I In History: Of Gentiles and Jews – A Hebrew Odyssey Scrolling the Internet. Lulu Press Inc,
- MacCulloch. Edgar. (1853). Notes and Queries. Medium of Inter-Communication. Literary Ment, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, Etc. Volume Eight. July – December, 1853. George Bell, 186 Fleet St, London, England. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=rDsX0LZEc-gC&pg=PA655&dq=why+does+cornwall+have+a+history+of+gentiles+with+hebraic+names&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjYwN2Xl_7hAhUw63MBHWD3AlAQ6AEINDAC#v=onepage&q=cornwall&f=false
- Methodist Heritage. (2019). The History of Methodism. Retrieved from: http://www.methodistheritage.org.uk/heritageofmethodism.htm
- Pearce, Keith. (2004). The Jews of Cornwall; A history and settlement to 1913. Halsgrove Publishing. Bagley Road, Wellington, Somerset, England. ISBN: 9780857042224
- Saperstein, Marc.(2004). The Popes against the Jews. Jewish-Christian Relations. Commonwealth Magazines. Retrieved from: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/popes-against-jews
- Sassenberg, Marina. (2012). The Jews of Cornwall Revisited. European Judaism. 45 (2), 139-146. Doi:10.3167/ej.2012.45.02.12
- Tonkin, Thomas (1710), Carew, Richard. (first published 1602). Carew’s Survey of Cornwall. To which are added, notes illustrative, history and antiquities. T. Bensley Publisher, London. Retrieved from: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=aX_SAAAAMAAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PR1